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The Week That Was:

From: Vartaa Editorial Team on Feb 28, 2016

JNU Student Protests, Nationalism, and the Freedom of Speech- Part 3

As Parliament's Budget session convened this past week, the government's latest adventures with Indian universities took centre. Both the Houses of Parliament debated the JNU action and the death of Rohith Vemula. The HRD Minister Smriti Irani took centerstage on the first two days and launched a scathing attack on the Opposition. However, it did not take long for the Minister, no stranger to controversies, to land in one again. Her claims that Rohith Vermula's body was used for political purposes were labelled 'lies' by Rohith's family and her reference to some JNU students celebrating 'Mahisasur Martyrdom Day' raised the heckles of the Opposition leading to her remarks being expunged from the records of the Rajya Sabha and igniting a new debate in the country.

Budget; Railway and General

Amidst the political uproar, Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu presented the Rail Budget for the year. While avoiding a freight or passenger fare increase, Prabhu's budget still called for improvement in amenities for the passenger. Funding challenges for the Railways remain however and its operating ratio (amount of revenue applied to day to day expenses) is expected to remain high at 92%. The markets were not enthused and Railway linked stocks fell by 10%. All eyes are now on Finance Minister Arun Jaitley as to what initiatives will be rolled in the Union Budget. The government has been struggling to fight off the perception of a slowing economy and keep foreign investors interested. The Economic Survey, presented in Parliament, this week also had a sobering picture to paint about India's role in a soft global economy.

Soldier on Miss

There is some heartening news for gender equality and security in India. Women will now take on combat roles in all three sections of the military- Army, Navy, and Air force. Previously, women were only inducted as officers or for supporting roles. Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar announced that this will be done in a phased manner. In October last year, he had announced that the first batch of women fighter pilots will start serving in June 2017.

Mallya's exit and Tata's discontent

One of India's most visible and controversial business tycoons, Vijay Mallya, has been shown the exit door from his United Breweries franchise by the parent company Diageo with a separation fee of Rs 515 cr. An internal Diageo inquiry into the function of United Spirits did not have very favorable findings about Mallya who chose to step away rather than engage in a protracted legal battle. Mallya's exit prompted many an obituary with most writers zeroing in on how his foray into the airline sector with Kingfisher Airlines started his unravelling. In another corporate story, the government has decided to scrap the controversial 5/20 rule and replace it with a less stringent rule. Recall, from our coverage last week- this rule requires domestic airlines to fly domestically for at least 5 years and have a fleet of 20 aircraft before they can fly internationally and this has been cause for disagreement between the Tata group and incumbent airlines. Mr. Rata Tata, had expressed his displeasure with the rule which he thought penalized Tata Group airline interests Vistara and AirAsia. Incumbent airlines continued to fight lobby for the rule to stay in place by warning that fares will go up if the rule were scrapped while Tata rubbished their claims.

Opinions you must read:

  • The Economist outlines why political expediency should not trump economic logic in this year's Annual Budget.
  • The Mint examines why some of the promises made in this year's Rail Budget may run into execution challenges
  • Salil Tripathi writes in Mint on an emerging pattern of misuse of 'patriotic fervour' in the country
  • Amidst calls for 'sedition' related provisions of the IPC to be scrapped, Arvind Datar argues that any such action must be preceded by examination of empirical evidence
  • Media coverage can often create caricatures out of real people. Umar Khalid, the JNU student at the centre of the 'sedition' storm, has been receiving a lot of coverage on TV news. Read this piece by one of this teachers about what Khalid was in the classroom.

Chart of the Week

In light of the recent debate regarding Freedom of Expression that was brought into focus by the arrests at JNU, we thought it would be pertinent to look at the state of Human Freedom around the world and where India stands. The Cato Institute, a leading think tank based in Washington D.C., publishes the 'Human Freedom Index' (HFI) for over 150 countries around the world. The HFI "...presents a broad measure of human freedom, understood as the absence of coercive constraint" and comprises of Personal, Civil, and Economic Freedom. It uses 76 distinct indicators of personal and economic freedom in the areas of: Rule of Law, Security and Safety, Movement, Religion, Association, Assembly, and Civil Society, Expression, Relationships, Size of Government, Legal System and Property Rights, Access to Sound Money, Freedom to Trade Internationally, Regulation of Credit, Labor, and Business. This is the most comprehensive study on Human Freedom done globally thus far. Countries in Western Europe and North America fare well whereas countries in North Africa and Middle East are ranked lowest. Of the 157 countries studied, India ranks 86th overall. When it comes to Freedom of Expression, India ranks 79th.

Through the course of the JNU debate, some argued that the government and law enforcement acted in a repressive manner and infringed on the freedom of expression. While others argued that the freedom of expression should be exercised responsibly. The arrested JNU student leader vehemently protested by stating he does "..not need a certificate of Nationalism from the RSS." Skeptics looking at the HFI report may very well claim that India does not need a certificate on Freedom from an American think tank either. We encourage our readers to form an informed opinion and engage in this important debate. Whichever side of the debate you are on, you probably agree that the world's largest democracy needs to do better than 86th..

But why should ordinary Indians care? Why does India need to do better? Wouldn't a lot of people, especially those facing economic hardships, gladly give up some of their rights for health, education, prosperity, and the promise of a better standard of living in general? While freedom in and of itself is a noble goal to pursue and should be emphatically preserved, there is an economic argument to be made for it as well. Notice that countries with high GDP and low economic inequality have a high HFI. While this suggests correlation, causation almost certainly exists. This excerpt from the HFI publishers makes this point eloquently: "...Lastly, in recent years China and some minor 'economic tigers' such as Vietnam and Arab monarchies such as Bahrain have, at least in public perception, provided us with a new model for economic growth. A new political mythology holds that only strictly organized authoritarian regimes can create strategies for growth and wealth, while pluralistic democracies cannot agree on such a strategy. This myth is rather the product of a very selective perception of the true successes or failures of autocracies or democracies. While there may be a few successful authoritarian regimes, these are certainly exceptions to the rule. The vast majority of illiberal regimes preside over misery, squalor, and corruption. "